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A project that started off as a training scheme for library staff is giving adults with learning difficulties new skills and restored confidence, reports Elaine Williams

Tim Houseley holds out a finely restored book to show off the sheen and tautness of his expertly applied backing, explaining in detail how he cuts, glues and folds.

Tim is quite at home beavering away at a table in the homes and gardens section of Waterthorpe library in Crystal Peaks, Sheffield. But as little as a year ago Tim, a 34-year-old man with Down's syndrome, would have felt too shy and awkward even to have set foot in a library. Today he is perfectly comfortable as he re-backs and re-shelves books, talks to library users and works the computerised catalogue. And he clearly enjoys the attention as he talks about his work.

He is one of a group of 12 adults with learning difficulties given training and employment in basic library clerical skills as part of a joint venture between libraries, community health workers and Sheffield College.

The Ad Lib project came about when Sheffield Libraries and Information Service decided its staff needed training to help them deal with adult library customers who had learning difficulties and that the best form of training would involve working alongside them. However, the scheme's success is measured not only by the knowledge and insight the project offers to library staff but by the opportunities it has provided in areas traditionally inaccessible to people with learning difficulties.

Ad Lib already had a successful local model - the Greenfingers project set up by a Sheffield community health service organisation, Intowork, to offer pre-accredited training in horticulture for adults with learning difficulties in partnership with Sheffield College. Over the past three years, one million bedding plants have been planted throughout the city as a result of Greenfingers.

Ad Lib wanted to provide similarly structured training in clerical work, based in libraries. The project would also give adults the skills to carry out essential work. The city had a valuable collection of 400 art books mouldering in storage because it lacked the staff to restore them. So while Tim and his group spent two of their three days a week training at branch libraries - Waterthorpe, Stocksbridge and Manor - on Fridays they gathered in the conservation workshops of the prestigious Ruskin Gallery. Here they learned to clean and re-back expensive tomes on acclaimed artists, becoming familiar with the pictures as well as the restoration techniques. Their enormous enthusiasm has ensured that those books, now restored, will soon be available for public access in the city's Graves Art Gallery.

Rosemary Telfer, manager of the Ad Lib project and group manager for the city's mobile and special library services, hopes the team can go on to catalogue the whole Ruskin Gallery book collection and that Ad Lib can expand into school libraries to challenge children's prejudice about the abilities of people with learning difficulties. Rosemary Telfer says: "We want to show that despite their disability these people can do a proper job. We want them to earn respect for being competent."

Despite 10 years of care in the community policies, adults with learning disabilities remain marginalised, with many jobs closed to them, particularly in white-collar areas. Ad Lib has therefore been acclaimed as an imaginative step forward and has won the Library Association's Libraries Change Lives award. The award, sponsored by the Libraries and Information Show, is given every year for outstanding and unusual initiatives that start in libraries and reach out into communities and to people with special needs, way beyond the basic service of book-lending.

The association praised Ad Lib for the way it built up its students' communication skills, developed teamwork and broke down prejudices. Although some of the Sheffield library staff were anxious about how adults such as Tim Houseley would cope, they have been won over. Margaret Lambert, a senior library assistant at Waterthorpe, says: "We didn't know how it would work out and they were so shy, standing at the door, not daring to come in. We didn't realise how minor tasks, such as using the keypad to open the office door, were major obstacles, but they learned so quickly. We have such a laugh together. Now they're just part of the staff and our library users certainly see them that way."

As some of the group members had not even used scissors before, the training had to be individually tailored and built up slowly from a series of simple, repetitive, but real, tasks. With the help of staff from Sheffield College, the library service devised a pre-National Vocational Qualification course that required students to check the library's collections, identify books that needed restoring, replace the old jacket with a new one, strengthen the spine, clean pages defaced with underlining and notation, paste in stamp labels and re-shelve the books.

The students were also given talks by conservators working with specialist and rare book collections, and became confident at turning up for work at a more rarified venue such as the Ruskin Gallery, the sort of place that previously would have seemed intimidating and out of bounds.

Violet Southern, a member of the group in her early 50s, suffers from acute anxiety and lack of confidence and had never been in a library before joining Ad Lib. Once she found that she could pick up the skills quickly, her self-esteem grew. "I love doing what the staff do and I get on with all of them," she said. "I don't want to stop - never."

The pound;4,000 Libraries Change Lives prize will pay for educational trips, for example to bookbinders' premises "to see the process from the very beginning".

Howard Matthews, group manager for Sheffield libraries, says: "I don't see why we couldn't build in the skills used more by a conservator. It has made us all view differently the kind of work people with such disabilities are capable of."

* Runners-up for the award include the Birmingham Reading Volunteers Scheme, a project administered and co-ordinated by Birmingham Library Services which recruits and trains adult volunteer readers for schools from business and the wider community. Rotherham Electronic Magazine was also selected as an example of the difference a library can make in an area of deprivation, poor housing and high unemployment. With help from Single Regeneration Budget funding, Rotherham Library and Information Service has established partnerships with local groups in the town's Eastwood Oakhill area and employed two trainers to help local people produce a community magazine using Internet technology.

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